ultimate guide to sichuan food

Exploring Sichuan Cuisine [Chinese Food that Leaves You Numb]

This area that we’re in (Sichuan) is a highlight of our visit to China because of the food. For some months now we’ve both been saying “oh, just wait until we get to Sichuan”.  We are seriously enjoying Sichuan Cuisine.

And now we’re here, she isn’t disappointing us at all.

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I’ve just left the Hongdingfang restaurant in Chengdu. And having been introduced to the Síchuan peppercorn for the first time I am not only sated but most definitely comfortably numb.

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Like we did in Vietnam, we have a list in China. Specifically for food. And here in Sichuan, it’s “pretty much everything we can wrap our lips, teeth and tongue around”. We missed good Indian food so much in California, that Nige started cooking his own from scratch and I know I’ll never starve because I can make a Naan bread from the basic ingredients in a frying pan. We found that by the end of Vietnam we were craving hot, spicy, interesting foods (and Sapa disappointed with too much westernization).

Once we got over the border from Lao Cai to Hekou, the food got more interesting.

We came to Hongdingfang for Sichuan Hotpot. We had no idea if there was an English translation or how to order, but we’ve found Chengdu to be the friendliest city to date in China, so we had no doubt that if we watched for long enough we’d figure out what to do, or more likely, in their usual way, the Chengdu Chinese would ensure that we were steered right.

And steered right we were.

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When you order hotpot here, first of all you decide on the “pot” – that is, what’s the oil n veg n stock going to be. Hongdingfang have a “half n half” option – an inner circle is hot, spicy and laden with those famous Sichuan peppercorns and chilies, the outer ring has butter, and isn’t so hot. At least that’s the version that we got. Neighboring tables had a bigger outer spicy ring and the inner ring was for the wimps.

Hot in the Middle, Wimpy Outside
Hot in the Middle, Wimpy Outside

To order, we were given a clipboard, with carbon paper, and a series of lists in Chinese characters and an attached pen. Taking pity on the poor Westerners, we were also brought two laminated picture cards. We picked ham sausage slices, pork, potatoes, wild looking mushrooms and a side of steamed dumplings. Plus we went for the spicy-n-wimpy option pot option. That would, our server said, be enough. We forgot rice, you should always order rice.

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In the middle of our table was a recessed gas burner, that a big square metal container with our hot-n-wimp preloaded pot was lowered onto and the gas was lit. Nearby tables pots boiled viciously.

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As we waited for our pot to boil, our accompaniments began to arrive – a bowl of sesame oil each, about 6 inches in diameter, and an inch and a half deep with the fragrant oil. A shared bowl of minced garlic and one too of coriander. Also a shared bowl of perhaps peanut sauce, I wasn’t sure, but by this time, our server had taken charge – the peanut-probably-sauce was poured into my sesame oil, I was given a spoon of minced garlic, the same of coriander and told to mix it.

Chopsticks the size of a small tree were what I was supposed to do this with. I’d only just got used to regular sized chopsticks and now this. I almost had to move my chair further from the table to use them. Chopsticks, we’ve found in Sichuan are generally longer than the far north and further south.

Our ham, potato and mushrooms were tipped into wimpy for us butter oil and we’re told, 3 minutes to cook. We put the pork in spicy for one minute and once the ham, potato and mushrooms were cooked (ok, so probably overcooked, as our server came and rescued us again), we dipped everything in the spicy bowl for a second or two.

Hot in the Middle, Wimpy Outside
Hot in the Middle, Wimpy Outside

All the other tables then dipped their hot spicy cooked food into the bowl of sesame oil mixture and ate it. Feeling a little oil-ver-whelmed, we missed most of the oil mixture out and just used a plate to let the scorching hot in temperature food cool a little before eating.

It’s an interesting sensation – the Sichuan peppercorn. And in a good way. First the end of your tongue starts to tingle a little, not alarmingly. Then a cool numbness spreads along your tongue, your lips also tingle. It’s not numb in the way that the dentist gets you, everything still belongs to you and works, it is, as the title suggest comfortably numb. And it doesn’t affect your taste buds. The food was still spicy, still good to eat. None of this was too hot, or made my stomach revolt, either then or the day afterwards.

Mapo Doufo (Tofu) is another specialty of the regio. The literal translation that you’ll find in some restaurants is ‘Tofu in Hot Sauce”, which just doesn’t sound nearly exotic enough so we’ll stick with Mapo Doufu, which we had twice in two days. Another very oily dish, this literally is medium soft tofu, in a hot spicy, oily, red, Sichuan peppercorn laden sauce. And it’s delicious. The first time at a side of the road place near the Baoguo Temple, at the base of Emeishan Mountain, it was good. The second time, at ChenmapoDoufu back in Chengdu, it was lip tingly, tongue numbingly fabulous.

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Also joining the Sichuan specialities is Twice Cooked Pork – crunchy, a little crispy, a lot fatty, the pork came with green slightly warm chilies, some spring onions and not too much heat. Good, but we still search for a pork dish to beat the smoked pork from Yunnan province.

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Rounding our our culinary exploration in Sichuan to date is Kung Pao Chicken. Yep folks, I’ve even gone as far as chicken and it was so very well worth it. Laden with peanuts, complete with crunchy chunks of spring onion and in the most marvelous caramelized honey like spicy hot sauce this complemented and did not detract in any way whatsoever from the Mapo Doufu at Chenmapo Doufu.

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We’re on a bus now, for the next 8 or so hours, with only the hope of instant noodles to sustain us, it will be long trip to Jiuzhaigou – known also as China’s Yosemite.

Meanwhile here’s a little more food porn.

More KungPao Chicken
More KungPao Chicken
Fried Bamboo Shoots
Fried Bamboo Shoots
Yet more Mapo Doufu
Yet more Mapo Doufu

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